Viewing Guide: Tips to seeing Mars when it lights up the summer sky

Tips to becoming a backyard astronomer

mars
Mars (Source: NASA)

Look up to the sky! Does it seem like Mars is getting bigger and brighter?

That’s because it is, technically.

This July Mars and Earth will come nearest to each other in their orbits around the sun, an event called a “Close Approach,” according to NASA.

What is a “close approach”?

Close approach means the two planets will come nearest to each other in their orbits around the sun. But close is a relative term.

The minimum distance from the Earth to Mars is about 33.9 million miles (54.6 million kilometers). However, that doesn’t happen very often.

Planets travel on elliptical orbits. Therefore, their relative distances vary throughout the year.

The gravitational pull of other planets also influences the orbital paths of Earth and Mars. Jupiter “especially influences the orbit of Mars,” according to NASA.

Essentially that means, not all close encounters are equal. In 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in nearly 60,000 years. Bad news: It won’t be that close again until the year 2287.

When the two planets are close, Mars appears very bright in our sky. It’ll be easier to see with telescopes or the naked eye.

The Red Planet comes close enough for exceptional viewing only once or twice every 15 or 17 years.

When can I see it?

Mars Close Approach 2018 (Source: NASA)

Mars will be closer to Earth than it’s been in 15 years on Tuesday, July 31.

The Red Planet will be located 35.8 million miles from us.

Mars will shine brightest between July 27 and July 30, according to NASA.

The planet will reach its highest point around midnight — about one-third of the distance between the horizon and overhead.

Good news: Mars will be visible for much of the night.

Tips for becoming a backyard astronomer:

Heartland Weekend asked Jennifer Wiseman for some advice on becoming a backyard astronomer.

  • Just look up. You can see a ton with your naked eye. That list includes the Geminid Meteor Shower, Earth’s Moon, stars and more.
  • Most important: a dark sky. This might be the most important tip. It is possible to catch a glimpse of a meteor or two from the suburbs. But to experience a true meteor shower, avoid city lights.
  • Bring binoculars. You can see even more. Like the detail on our moon or a glimpse of Jupiter and its inner moons.
  • Know your constellations. The Geminid meteors appear to come from the constellation Gemini. You can easily identify any of the constellations lighting up the night sky using apps like Sky Guide for Apple and Sky Map for Android.
  • Dress appropriately. It can be chilly in the hours before dawn when you’re skywatching. So we suggest making sure you dress in layers. You might also bring a blanket and lawn chair to make yourself comfortable.